It was a miracle that inspired the Paley clan to gather in 1946. Eight cousins had fought in World War II and all returned home safely. It was a reason to rejoice and ever since, the Paleys have been meeting annually to celebrate their family and tell the stories to the younger generations.
This year was no different but it was special —Tucsonan Al (Alfred) Paley, 83, recently returned from this year’s reunion in Washington, D.C., which marked the 100th anniversary of his family’s presence in America. The family story is the quintessential early 20th century American immigration tale. One hundred years ago, family patriarch Morris Paley managed to escape the poverty and Jewish persecution of czarist Russia. He and eventually all of his eight children arrived in New York to make new lives. Al’s father and uncles worked in the garment industry, investing long hours and sweat equity to improve themselves and their children’s futures.
Al’s father, Max Paley, in conjunction with his factory work, created a system to resize clothing. He applied for a U.S. patent in 1916. In time, his hard work and ingenuity paid off and he moved the family from Coney Island to Monticello, in the Catskill Mountains. “It’s because we lived up in the Catskills that we became a really tight-knit family,” Paley says. “Our cousins came up to summer with us and we enjoyed many happy times together.” When the depression years struck there were fewer happy times
and like many Americans, Al’s father Max suffered financial and real estate losses. With a wry grin, Paley relates a Depression-era story about his father who, sleepless over his inability to pay the mortgage, got up at 3 a.m. and went over to the lienholder’s house, knocked on the door and reported, “I can’t pay the mortgage and I can’t sleep; now you can’t sleep either!”
Paley’s family rebounded from Depression hardship. They returned to Brooklyn, N.Y., and Al eventually went on to college at Brooklyn Polytechnic Institute. But he insists that what influenced him most were the stories his family shared. Hearing about his father’s patent, which was finally awarded in 1927, the same year Al was born, led him to become an engineer and eventually earn two patents himself.
Paley married his wife, Sylvia, in 1949 in Brooklyn. They raised their three children, Maureen, Howard and Doreen in Levittown on Long Island. In 1994, the retired Paleys moved to Tucson, where Howard, a University of Arizona graduate, had established his career and family. But every fall they travel to wherever it is that the family is gathering, not only keeping the old stories alive, but generating new ones as well.
“These gatherings are wonderful because they allow us to tell stories about the old days that the younger generation likes to hear; then we spend a lot of time arguing about where the next year’s reunion will be held,” says Paley. This year, though, there was little argument about who was going to organize the 2011 reunion. After many years of declined invitations, the family finally convinced a long-estranged cousin, Paul Paley, to come to the 100th anniversary clan celebration. Overwhelmed and inspired by the acceptance of his loving family, he volunteered to join forces with his cousin, Barry Paley, to organize the 2011 Paley reunion in New York. It’s a story that will certainly be retold at future Paley family gatherings.
Renee Claire is a freelance writer in Tucson.